Elephants Can Remember by Agatha Christie
18 March, 2011
I think this was my third favourite novel by Christie (after Murder on the Links and The Mysterious Mr. Quin), but I couldn’t remember exactly why as I had read it donkeys years ago. So perusing my de-cluttered bookshelf at home I thought I’d do a little re-reading and sweep the cobwebs aside.
It’s a small novel in two parts featuring Hercule Poirot and his friend the crime novelist Ariadne Oliver. What I liked about Elephants Can Remember is the unorthodox structure of the novel. It felt very modern and then I realised that it was written in the 1970s so the feel of the novel, although retaining Christie’s trademark golden age crime flavour, was a bit more experimental. I liked it tremendously. In fact, it’s Christie’s last novel featuring Poirot, although Poirot’s last case Curtain, though written earlier, was published later.
The mystery begins when Ariadne Oliver is accosted by one Mrs. Burton-Cox who wants to dig up information on Ariadne’s god-daughter Celia Ravenscroft who also happens to be her son’s fiancé. Ariadne is repulsed by this woman and also does not want to dig too deep into Celia’s tragic past. A scandalous tragedy, both of Celia’s parents died in an apparent suicide 12 years ago. Or was it murder? What Mrs. Burton-Cox wants to know is whether the father killed the mother or vice versa. Although reluctant to snoop, Ariadne calls upon her friend Poirot to see whether he can puzzle it out. And when Celia herself wants to find out the truth of her parents’ deaths, both Ariadne and Poirot must go back into history and find out what really happened.
Christie has put together a cast of suspects from Mrs. Ravenscroft’s slightly unhinged twin sister Dolly, her son, two French governesses, a cook and of course Celia’s parents. Mrs. Burton-Cox is also acting rather suspiciously and before you know it, you are suspecting everyone, including Celia, who was then about 14 years old.
As usual, Christie always manages to astound me with the dénouement. I’ve read so many murder mysteries thanks to Christie that I can now spot the murderer from a mile away. But I still remember the thrill of reading this book as the tragic story unfolds. This time around, I noticed more the ingenious way Christie tries to draw your attention away, leaving a trail of red herrings, as you follow Ariadne and Poirot’s progress into the past. What startled me was actually how dark the story is, not something you would expect from a Christie novel. Of course, it’s a tale of murder, but we tend to think that compared to modern fiction, those written in earlier times are perhaps lighter and safer. Although there’s no gore or gratuitous violence, the themes underlying Christie’s mysteries are very dark indeed.
Christie used to be my favourite mystery author for a long time and although I hadn’t read her novels in years since I finished going through them, re-reading them is a true pleasure. She has been accused of having one-dimensional characters, stereotypes and following a formula, but she’s much more than that. What she’s good at is simply telling a damned good story. And I think few, even now, can compare.
I’m also a huge fan of the TV adaptations of her stories (even though some bear little resemblance to the books). To me, they are a comforting reminder of my childhood. Yes, I even got stopped at the airport once because I was carrying one of her novels featuring a gun on the cover (I think it was The ABC Murders). I think I was about 10 then. Oops.
So, have you read any novels by Christie? And if so, which is your favourite tale?